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How Seymour Siwoff, the ‘angel of statistics,’ helped us understand baseball

Reflecting on the longtime Elias Sports Bureau president, who passed away at age 99.

MLB: Washington Nationals at San Francisco Giants Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

On the day after Thanksgiving, baseball lost a titan. Seymour Siwoff wasn’t a former player or manager, nor was he an umpire, front office executive, or an owner. But in running the company that for decades was the official statistician for Major League Baseball, Siwoff’s imprint on the game is enormous.

Siwoff joined the Elias Sports Bureau as an accountant before fighting in World War II, then bought the company in 1952 and built it into the behemoth that it is today with nearly seven full decades of leadership. He passed away at age 99.

Statistics are the lifeblood of sports with baseball leading that charge. Some numbers in baseball are magical, like Barry Bonds’ 762 home runs or Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak.

It’s absurd how quickly we can access baseball statistics these days. Thanks to wonderful sites like Baseball-Reference, FanGraphs, Baseball Savant and the like, we can almost instantly know the most specific of feats, such as the four times a pitcher struck out 20 batters in a nine-inning game.

Baseball statistics weren’t always at our fingertips at a moment’s notice, certainly not before the internet or before personal computers became widespread. I knew of stats thanks to the backs of baseball cards and voracious reading of The Baseball Encyclopedia. Certain numbers are burned into my memory forever, like Wade Boggs hitting .368 with a whopping 240 hits in 1985*, Don Mattingly homering in a record-tying eight straight games in 1987, or Eddie Murray getting 184 hits in 558 at-bats, hitting a major league-best .330 in 1990.

*Boggs’ 240 hits in 1985 was the highest total in 55 years, and wasn’t reached again until 2000. It’s been reached just 15 times in major league history. 1980s Boggs was a force of nature. Through his first seven seasons (1982-88), Boggs won five batting titles and was hitting .356 with a .445 on-base percentage. Good gravy.

I was also excellent at remembering phone numbers back then, but since the advent of cell phones the need for memorization is no longer needed and my recollection has atrophied. It’s the same for baseball stats. I can look them up at any time, so there isn’t a need to commit many to memory.

Imagine how difficult it was 50 years ago to even know certain statistics, many of which weren’t even fully known until after the season was complete. Enter Seymour Siwoff, whose record-keeping vigilance was on full display in an excellent Sports Illustrated profile from 1969, one that dubbed Siwoff “the recording angel of statistics.” Ernie Banks drove in seven runs on May 13 that year, and the Cubs PR department wasn’t sure if this was in fact a personal record (they didn’t have Baseball-Reference, you see). So they called Siwoff at the Elias Sports Bureau:

Now Siwoff was exhorting his men to comb the records for Ernie Banks’ personal single-game high in runs batted in, and they were responding with exuberance. Out came large volumes containing sheets laced with forbidding rows of figures, including a day-by-day compilation of the 2,300-odd games the 38-year-old Banks had played. Each man, Siwoff included, took one of the volumes and scanned the columns quickly and silently.

Moments later the phone rang back at Wrigley Field. “Banks has had seven RBIs in a game twice before,” Siwoff reported breathlessly. “On August 4, 1955, and again on May 1, 1963.” This intelligence went out immediately over the ball park’s public-address system to the crowd on hand and, via the press box, to the outside world. “If Seymour says it’s so, then it’s so,” testified Chuck Shriver, the Cubs’ publicity man. “He’s my bible.”

Siwoff ran Elias for an astonishing 67 years before turning over control of the company to his grandson, Joe Gilston, earlier in 2019.

Statistics can be cold and unemotional but they are also a way to better understand the game. A boxscore can be art and paint a wonderfully vivid picture of a game, something to enhance, not replace the experience. I’ve been obsessing over relatively obscure numbers for 35 years, not because of the numbers themselves but rather my love of baseball. They give me a deeper connection to the sport.

Siwoff in that 1969 SI profile said, “What I enjoy most about statistics is the chance they give you to relive the past.”

In a 1987 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Siwoff showed that, in addition to stats, he had a deep love of sports:

“Somebody may do something phenomenal, which is why sports has this enormous romance to it. The reason is because sports is drama, high drama. You go to the theater and you know how the ending is because somebody already wrote it, right? But sports is the ultimate theater. You know the ending only when the game ends. Sometimes nothing happens. Sometimes an unusual thing happens.”

Being able to recognize and celebrate the unusual was made easier by the tireless work of Siwoff and many others. Thank you for this beautiful gift.